During the second tripartite coalition government in Catalonia, ten years ago, nobody could have imagined that nowadays Catalonia would be about to hold a referendum on independence. In February 2007 a group of businessmen met at IESE, the Barcelona-based private business school, to demand that the city’s airport be managed by the Catalan authorities (with Eulen’s strike in El Prat, we are currently experiencing the negative consequences of Spain’s centralised airport management system). In December that year, a march to demand "the right to decide over Catalan infrastructures” became the second spark that, years later, ignited the full-on national debate. Lluís Corominas, the current leader of the Junts pel Sí secessionist group in parliament, recalls that “the discrimination by the Spanish government was already palpable at the time and Catalans used to express their grievances in specific instances”. Ten years ago Corominas was a CiU MP in the Catalan parliament. Three years before the notorious ruling against the Catalan Statute by Spain’s Constitutional Court (2010), we saw the prelude of a triple crisis (national, political and economic) that hit Catalan society.
The prospect of increasing Catalan self-rule by enacting the 2006 Statute that was approved in a referendum by the Catalan people (despite a number of significant changes made to the original text) was the “common ground” that brought together the PSC, ERC and ICV and the reason why the tripartite coalition was renewed, according to Laia Bonet, the former secretary of Montilla’s government (2007-10). Discreet meetings between ERC and CiU with a view to reaching an agreement were fruitless and, despite winning the elections, Artur Mas had no choice but to lead the opposition once again. The time was ripe to get down to work and build his so-called Casa Gran del Catalanisme (the political home of all Catalanists), a project that Mas had outlined in November 2007 at an event in Barcelona’s Palau de Congressos with the “right to decide” as its main tenet. This change of course did not please Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida, the leader of the now defunct Unió Democràtica party, who favoured a head-on clash with the tripartite coalition. Political scientist Joan Botella believes that “CiU’s crisis started right then” and it came to a head with the break-up of the federation in 2015.
What did the CEO say about Catalans?
Ten years ago 60 per cent of respondents thought that Catalonia’s self-rule was insufficient, according to figures released by government pollster CEO in July 2007. Nevertheless, only 17 per cent favoured outright independence, while 34 per cent supported a federal model for Spain and 37 per cent felt that the system of autonomous regions was satisfactory. “The national issue did not strain Catalonia until the Constitutional Court’s ruling came in 2010”, says Santi Rodríguez, who was a Partido Popular MP in the Catalan parliament back in 2007 and currently serves as his party’s secretary general in Catalonia. Former Catalan vice president and ERC leader Josep Lluís Carod-Rovira claims that the “constitutional pact was crushed” when the Spanish Court struck down Catalonia’s Statute. This occurred six months before the elections when Artur Mas received an outright majority, with his party (Convergència) “rushing to denounce the failure of the so-called Dragon Khan government”, according to former ICV leader Dolors Camats (1). Parallel to the emergence of the so-called “right to decide” in Catalonia’s social imaginary “there was the notion of sustained progress and a cohesive society that offered opportunities to the young”, notes sociologist Marta Subirats. A buoyant economy and optimism for a hopeful future began their decline in 2007.
Spanish PM Zapatero denies there is a recession
“When the first signs of the recession were felt, there was the idea that we were well-off”, Botella recounts. Evidence of that is the opinion held by Catalans about the economy: 54 per cent thought it was doing well, while only 29 per cent say so nowadays. Camats slams Spanish PM Zapatero for “flagrantly denying that there was an economic downturn in progress”.
Part of the second tripartite government’s social spending went to education, which saw 150,000 new migrant students join the Catalan school system. As reported by the CEO in 2007, the large wave of immigrants was one of the Catalan people’s main concerns and the second tripartite strove to absorb it. Fear of competition for jobs when unemployment was already high set off alarm bells over the rise of far-right party Plataforma per Catalunya, led by Josep Anglada, who nearly got a seat in parliament. Bonet celebrates that fact that “the tables have turned and nowadays people want to welcome refugees”.
According to Dolors Camats, the political parties’ inability to alleviate the “devastating” effects of the recession, combined with the exposure of political corruption cases, have drawn a new picture: “these years have taught us that the public must remain watchful”, Bonet remarks.
The seed that was sown in 2007 did not bear fruit until 2012, when CDC openly embraced independence and triggered the events that have brought Catalonia to the gates of a (definitive?) independence referendum slated for October 1.
(1) The two consecutive tripartite coalition governments in Catalonia were marred by internal feuding which was detrimental to the country’s political stability. Dragon Khan is a popular hair-raising ride in Catalonia’s Port Aventura theme park. Former Catalan minister Joan Carretero once compared the government he himself was a member of to “the Dragon Khan”.